“From Resilience to Recovery – the role of civil society”: a conference in Kyiv, Lviv and online

On 29-30 September a conference about the critical role of Ukrainian civil society in Ukraine’s recovery was organised by the Ukrainian International Renaissance Foundation. The conference took place in the context of preparations for the London follow-up conference in summer 2023 to the one held in Lugano, Switzerland in July 2022 to present the Ukrainian roadmap for the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine. International donors will play a major role in the London conference.

While many international speakers made a point of stressing the extraordinary activism of Ukrainian civil society in providing humanitarian relief during the current war, most Ukrainian participants expressed particular concern about the role of civil society in future reforms in governance and the judicial system, and in particular in Ukraine’s EU accession process.

Discussions on 30 September included a panel discussion on international support for civil society’s role in Ukraine’s reconstruction and recovery, with special emphasis on:

  • Synchronizing approaches and processes and paving the way to inclusive and supported reconstruction and recovery;
  • Situation analysis and scenarios for continued war and early recovery at the same time: what do we know about people’s expectations of living in the war and beyond the war?
  • How to build and maintain social cohesion and enable social recovery
  • How to fund just, inclusive and sustainable recovery
  • Architecture of transparency and accountability in the recovery process
  • How Ukraine’s recovery links to its integration into the EU
  • How to make recovery work: innovative, just, green and people-centred
  • What smart recovery solutions do communities, businesses and other stakeholders bring to the process?

A US speaker commended the competence and capabilities of Ukrainian civil society, most of whose members had opted to stay in Ukraine after the February invasion and had been providing critical support for vulnerable people. Civil society was also active in documenting human rights abuses and in ensuring that citizen’s voices are heard. It has also been monitoring the legal environment and will be a key pillar of society in reconstruction. It remains resilient and strong.

The European Commission (EC) representative said that civil society has been an important channel for delivery of EU humanitarian aid and is helping in the accession process on which Ukraine has embarked, in a structured forum with the Commission. The EC does not only provide funding for CSOs but regards them as partners.

It has been assessed that 60% of Ukrainian civilians have been active in civil society since the war began. The role of local and central government as well as that of civil society will need to be assessed in due course. Civil society from the regions as well as the centre will need to play a role in recovery, and it is deemed normal for a range of views to be put across by civil society, not just one view. However, a speaker referred to the lack of co-operation in the Ukrainian civil society sector and the competition between CSOs (for funding and influence) except in relation to documenting war crimes.

Ukraine will take the lead in its recovery programme and should be transparent and inclusive. Reconstruction will be a long process, with three stages: relief, reconstruction and reform. Donors will have a role in encouraging the government to involve CSOs (one speaker said there was a tendency for the government to marginalise civil society). Civil society will have a crucial role in all stages. It is itself changing: up to now it has depended on foreign funding and doesn’t have a membership base. But citizens have become involved in donating and volunteering and it might be time to develop a membership base in CSOs, though the experience in Central Europe showed that this would take time.

Ukrainian and foreign speakers stressed the need to win the peace as well as the war, and to involve civil society in ensuring that judicial and other institutional reforms speed up. Unfortunately, there is no clear agenda for such reforms but one needs to be ready for the London conference. Civil society should both propose and monitor reforms – “it will need both heavy and light weaponry to break through the Russian (Soviet) inheritance”, according to one speaker. Even during the war, local government (hromadas/communities) has had little advice from central government; schools etc had to decide for themselves how to adapt to conditions of war. But hromadas will need government and civil society support in the recovery and reform periods. Too often CSOs compete with each other instead of setting up partnerships.

A manifesto for civil society was proposed at Lugano but it would not be right for civil society to come forward with a united view. That is not its role. It should not just criticise but should be proactive, so that its activism overcomes passivity elsewhere in the system. The Maidan events had shown the way – people came forward, said what they could do and offered their skills and services. The government will have to accept civil society’s support. In the meantime, in the run up to the London conference, it should prepare and have proposals ready well in advance.   

The final speaker said that civil society still has ideas and energy and works hard but there
is a significant amount of frustration. He said: we need to support civil society better with access
to dialogue and greater participation in Ukraine’s policy and recovery. Victory,
recovery and integration are linked priorities. He added that civil society is not a homogenous group
and has different priorities.

Janet Gunn, BEARR Trustee

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